The spread of COVID-19 has decimated the world of entertainment—from sporting events to Disney World to conferences—and it’s only getting worse. Touring, the lifeblood of many musicians worldwide, has slowed to a near standstill, with no indication on when it could safely pick back up. And once things do get going, artists and bookers will face greater competition for space, with more tours overlapping in a shorter period.
Music is a tough business with ultra-slim margins, and virtually everyone who works within the industry does so as a labor of love. So once a wrench is thrown into the status quo, the result is pure chaos. You may be wondering how you can help your favorite artists and venues, which are experiencing major losses during this tumultuous time.. The good news is that there are ways, small as they may be. Artists generally have a few different sources of income, the main ones typically being touring (first and foremost), album sales, licensing/syncs, and merchandise. All come with their pitfalls, but album sales and merchandise will be crucial for artists as touring is taken off the table.
Despite what Almost Famous or whatever music videos you’ve seen will tell you, touring is pretty terrible most of the time. Not to mention it can be a giant roll of the dice, depending on the location of that show(s), competition from other events in the area, and a million other unseen factors.
“From the top to the bottom, everyone involved in live music is taking a collective and individual risk,” emphasizes Dominick Fernow, founder of Hospital Productions and a touring musician as Prurient/Vatican Shadow. “There are a lot of hidden costs and mouths to feed in the supply chain just to do one show.”
A typical touring day means at least 22 hours of preparing and waiting around for your 30- to 60-minute set, for which an entire band will split the fee of a few hundred or few thousand dollars—after, of course, some of it gets split off for concert promoters (who can be the shifty type), a merch salesperson, and maybe a sound and/or lighting guy if you want to make sure you have a tight ship from town to town. The entire time on the road is spent in a contained space with the same people for weeks at a time; sleep is a problem, eating right is a problem, personal relationships are a problem, and there’s always the danger of going out like Cliff Burton. On top of all that, the van/bus/trailer has costs, and you’re hauling expensive gear that can break down and take days to fix (since you’re never in one place for more than a day, that’s a problem).
It all adds up—yet somehow, touring can be most lucrative of all music ventures and result in months of savings for a band.
“Touring can always be a risk depending on where you are as a band and what you’re spending,” says Walter Schriefels, a veteran touring musician who plays in several classic punk bands including Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, and Youth of Today. “There are a lot of factors that go into making money on tour—some that are completely out of your control and some that you have to monitor constantly.”
Merchandise is a risk too, but can be another big revenue source. All of the band’s wares have fixed costs, but all items are purchased at a wholesale rate. So when a fan buys T-shirts, records, CDs, pins, sweatshirts, or whatever the band has to offer, it can mean the difference between a meal and none.
“It comes down to gambling,” says Fernow. “Every time a band invests in merch or a release, all of their costs are front-loaded. There is no guarantee on the sale or success of a product, so if you get something out of the music, even making a small purchase from the band makes you an investor.”
Syncs, although profitable, are a rarity, and are usually tied to films, commercials and other endeavors where the artist’s music is featured Independent artist syncs are even rarer, as there are few companies who focus strictly on independent music, and the people behind the project must be aware of the track or open-minded enough to seek it out; it’s just a numbers game.
“The syncs that I’ve gotten over the years has been because people have already been fans of my music,” explains Schriefels. “It rarely works randomly in my experience. It’s something you can’t expect to get, but it’s cool when it comes.”
Music—and all of the terrible things that come with it—is the life that these artists have chosen, but these are truly extraordinary times. So having a tour cancel isn’t just a problem for the band now; it’s a problem for the period of lost revenue, too, which means months of ongoing repercussions. To add insult to injury, there is no indication as to when the COVID-19 situation will remedy, and the jobs that many artists use to stay afloat between tours are often in the service industry—another area taking serious hits right now.
Supporting your favorite artists in any way possible—whether that’s buying merchandise, buying a record (physical or not), sending money, joining their Patreon, or whatever other options you come across—is paramount right now. As we dig in on social distancing, think about the importance that art has on our daily lives; not just records and music, all of it.
All that said, adaptation and innovation flows through an artist’s veins, and they will prevail.
“This is a good time to step back and start to think creatively about things,” says Fernow pensively. ”Survival isn’t about things, it’s about creativity.” And art will survive because we all need it. So give accordingly.